Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s first mission doesn’t begin with a blade to the belly or a bullet to the brain, but with a verbal scolding. While being briefed on his life-taking objective, protagonist Arno Dorian is curtly told: “I’m not here to hold your hand!”
More than merely introducing us to a rather rude non-player character, this encounter also hints at Unity’s fresh approach to mission structure. Dubbed “black box design” by creative director Alexandre Amancio, the philosophy offers players more freedom than ever in terms of how they tackle missions – and, ultimately, how they siphon the lives from their assassination targets.
Our recent gamescom 2014 Unity demo started with a cinematic, panning over some of the areas and characters that may be encountered, followed by a stat box listing intel such as how many alarm bells, secret entrances, and unique kill opportunities awaited us. Referring to the mission design as “open-ended and 360 degrees,” Amancio stated that the development team’s purpose is to encourage exploration and experimentation. Once the player’s briefing concluded, they could approach objectives however they pleased.
For the Ubisoft assassin running our demo, this meant heading to the main gate of Notre Dame Cathedral, where the target – a scumbag named Sivert – unknowingly awaited the reaper. As it turned out, the gate was well-guarded, making an impromptu infiltration a very bad idea. Exploring some quieter areas of the cathedral’s exterior, the player discovered a hidden entrance; sadly, it was locked, and he had yet to upgrade his lock-picking skill.
After a bit more stalking and skulking, Arno stumbled across a character that was scheduled to rendezvous with his target in the church’s confessional. Sensing an exploitable opportunity, the player tossed a smoke bomb into the crowd, sliced the man from ear to ear, and then slipped back into the chaos without anyone being the wiser. Called a “mission modifier” by Amancio, this seemingly scripted scenario didn’t have to unfold at all. As Amancio explained, these “mod missions” are optional, but have the potential to change everything from the mission path and context, to the gameplay and how the assassination target is ultimately eliminated. In this case, it afforded Arno the opportunity to impersonate his fresh victim.
Upon completing a second path-altering modifier – snatching a set of stolen cathedral keys from a thief who planned to rob the archbishop’s wine cellar – Arno had easy access to the church, and a plan for freeing the target of his innards. Despite Arno’s good fortune, though, he had to navigate Notre Dame’s grounds and interior carefully. Plenty of crouching, a couple of smoke bombs, a few choked guards, and (of course) one dive into a bale of hay later, Arno was seated in the cathedral’s confessional, inches from his target’s face.
After humoring the chattering mark for a moment, Arno forcefully drove his blade through the partition and into Sivert’s face. As the target’s arteries spilled their contents all over the confessional floor, a cinematic offered some narrative hints by revealing a glimpse of Sivert’s last living moments.
While our demo provided a taste of Unity’s mission-molding approach, it barely scratched the surface of this new free-form philosophy. Other tweaks, like the ability to continue pursuing a target (even if you’ve “failed” a tailing objective) further emphasize the game’s focus on increased player agency. On top of that, clothing customization – a purely cosmetic feature in previous Assassin’s Creed entries – adds even more strategic layers; the aforementioned locked cathedral entrance, for example, could have opened a completely different mission path, had Arno picked an outfit buffed with a lock-picking skill.
Toss in the Xbox One-fueled graphics, a narratively rich French Revolution setting, and the ability to kill cooperatively with friends, and Assassin’s Creed: Unity is shaping up to be the franchise’s most full-featured entry yet. We’re already sharpening our blades – and mission-cracking minds – in anticipation of its October 28 launch.